Sharing What Gives You Joy

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One of the memes doing the rounds on the internet in the wake of Marie Kondo’s video.

Bookish circles around the internet have been buzzing about the Marie Kondo video about tidying up your books, suggesting you identify the 30 books that give you joy, and dispose of the rest. There has been huge pushback among bibliophiles. One I know said “all my books give me joy!” Another said they had more than 30 books just on their nightstand. I think for some of us, a booklined wall (or walls) brings a feeling of safety. When I imagine a “safe place,” the first image that comes to mind is a book-lined library with a fireplace and rich and comfortable leather furniture.

At the same time many of us have far too much clutter in our lives. I’ve also recognized that a certain amount of de-accumulating of books is necessary at this stage of my life and I regularly donate, re-sell, and gift books, and still truly have more than I need–and they keep coming in!

As I’ve reflected on this idea of keeping books that give us joy, I have found that a corollary is giving books that give us joy, and that giving may even be a deeper source of joy than the books around us. It is interesting that we are encouraged to dispose of the books that don’t give us joy (although they may for someone else). Might a more meaningful gift be to share a book that has given us joy? In some cases, we may end up acquiring another copy, particularly if the book is one we want to revisit!

There was an article I read yesterday about physician burnout and how reading helps doctors replenish the emotional tank. We have a primary care doc who we really like, and, over the years, I’ve gotten a sense for the books he likes and I periodically bring one in when I have an appointment. Little did I realize that I might be helping avert burnout, but sharing joy may amount to the same thing.

I take for granted the ease with which I acquire books. Through interactions on this blog and on Facebook, I’ve discovered that this is not the case in many parts of the world, or even in some parts of our own society.  This has led me to begin exploring various ways to respond including donations of theological books. One place I’ve found that accepts scholarly theological works published after 1980 is the Theological Book Network that has shipped books to 1400 schools in the global south.

Prisons are another place often in need of books. The American Library Association publishes a list of secular organizations that accept donations of books. Among Christian ministries, Christian Library International serves over 1,000 prison facilities in the US.

Of course, one of the simplest things we can do is ask the question as we read a book that we really like is to ask who else would like it. One of the delights in sharing books is that when our friend has read the book, we can talk about it, and it adds to the things we share in common.

Of course, there are a number of other ways to share books and bring joy to others. Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist has a great list of twenty places to donate books. He thinks of all the places I know of and many more. Often, it is simply a matter of collecting books in a box and hauling them to a nearby local location. Others provide help in preparing books for shipment.

What I’m proposing is that a joyful life is a giving life. As joy-giving as great books are, finding ways to share those books offers the chance to enhance that joy for ourselves and to bring joy, knowledge, diversion and all the things we love about our books to others. That, it seems to me, is the prize beyond book lined walls and tidy shelves.

Toxic Masculinity?

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Screen capture: Closing image of “The Best Men Can Be”, Film by Gillette via YouTube

The internet blew up this past week over a video Gillette released titled “The Best Men Can Be.” It may go down as a courageous effort and a bad business decision. As of this writing, the video has been disliked by nearly twice as many as liked it.

I find that reaction puzzling, understandable, and disturbing.

The video shows images of bullying, sexual harassment, condescending behavior toward women, and a row of men behind barbecue grills chanting mantra-like “boys will be boys.” as one child beats another up in front of them. It shifts to a multiple screen portrayal of media coverage of #MeToo, and then to a call for action, a challenge for men to be their best selves, to hold each other accountable to a higher standard in their treatment of women and to call each other out (“not cool”), to help each other resolve conflict peacefully, to intervene when witnessing bullying, to empower one’s children, and to be models to the next generation of men.

The reaction is puzzling. Do we really dislike the message that men should act with integrity, courage, respect, and as positive role models of the same to their sons and other boys? Can we really justify bullying, violence, disrespect of women under the catch-all justification “boys will be boys?”

The reaction is understandable. This has been the ideal of masculinity going around for a long time. I grew up with it. Men were supposed to be tough, and you showed it by picking on “weaklings,” or by pretending you were tough so that you wouldn’t get picked on. Women existed to gratify your pleasures. Real men don’t show feelings or weakness.

The reaction is disturbing. It tells me that this version of masculinity is alive and well. You lash out when criticism gets too close for comfort. And it appears there is a significant amount of that discomfort.

It troubles me when…

  • we confuse bullying with courage–the courage that goes into battle, that fights wrongs, that protects the vulnerable.
  • we teach that resorting to violence is better than the calm word, or knowing when to walk away.
  • we justify objectifying women with looks, catcalls, gropes, and more rather than respecting their dignity as unique and gifted persons capable of running companies, outrunning us in some cases, and perhaps saving our lives.

So we have a society where most of the perpetrators of gun violence are men, mostly young men. So we have a society where men’s stoical determination not to show weakness drives them to an early grave from hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other ills. So we have a society where far too many of those who father children are AWOL when it comes to helping raise them. All of this seems like “toxic” masculinity to me, not good for men or those around them.

Some of the reaction to the ad arises from a perceived “war against boys and men.” I get that, and if you only watched the first part of the Gillette ad, you might have the same reaction. If even half the claims of #MeToo are warranted (and I suspect the percentage is far higher) it is hard time to feel good about one’s gender if you identify as male.

What I appreciated about the ad is that it went beyond “these guys are bad” and”I’m not that guy” to affirm models of masculinity that show true strength rather than posturing. It models calling each other to higher standards of respect toward women, of father’s empowering their daughters, of acting with courage and decency in front of one’s son. What the critics of this commercial miss, in my view, is that none of the positive models are sissies but people who act with strength. It’s not a put down of men but a call for men to step up.

A number of those who read this blog are believing Christians, and some of you may disagree with me. The question I have is, do you think Jesus is a model of true masculinity?  I think of the incident where Jesus’s followers are “chest bumping” over who is the greatest among them–typical toxic masculinity. Jesus replies:

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

Do we consider Jesus weak because he defines greatness in terms of servanthood, and his own mission as one of serving? Jesus says this as he is walking to the city where he will be betrayed, arrested and killed. Do we not consider perhaps the ultimate show of courage to be when someone gives their life for another? Is this not great strength? Is not every other act of service willingly given to one’s partner, one’s children, one’s colleagues, one’s community, likewise an act of strength?

I think it is something like this that Gillette means when it speaks of “The Best Men Can Be.” The cynics just consider it an advertising stunt. If so, it is probably a failed one. I’d rather call it an instance of corporate responsibility as a purveyor of men’s products. I’ve been shaving with Gillette razors since I started sprouting facial hair. I have Gillette razors in my medicine cabinet. I have no plans to stop using them.

Review: Religion and American Culture

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Religion and American Culture (3rd edition), George M. Marsden. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the interaction of religion and American civil culture from the nation’s beginnings up to 2016.

“The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably profane.”

The opening line of this survey of the history of the interaction of religion and American culture is an accurate thesis summary of this work. In part, it reflects the point of view of the author, George M. Marsden. He notes in the introduction to the work that his thinking is shaped by an Augustinian outlook that recognizes both the dignity of humans in God’s image and the reality of human evil, the parallel cultures of “City of God” and the “City of Man,” and that Christians inhabit both cities.

Marsden traces this interaction from the Protestant heritage of the early immigrants, which held sway in the country until the Civil War and the conflicted engagement with Native Peoples–from uneasy coexistence, to violent displacement, to occasional mission efforts–a conflicted record. He examines the different streams of thought contributing to the American revolution–and how they converged and diverged. He examines the heritage of dissent, the secular and deist founders, and the ideas shared in common by Locke and the Puritans. He notes a paradox of high ideals of liberty and justice, and the beginnings of manifest destiny and the use of power to displace native peoples, and hold Africans in servitude. These threads continue into the nineteenth century with the revivalist spread of evangelical culture, marked by increasing levels of education as frontier denominations establish colleges. This culminates in institutions like Oberlin College, motivated by religious revival, enrolling female students, and advocating abolition in an increasingly divided evangelical church along the geographic lines of north and south.

The post-Civil war era on its face seemed to reflect a continued advance of Protestantism, including Protestant missions. At the same time developments of both social progressivism, and the advent of Darwinism and higher critical theories brought the first cracks in the established position of both mainline and evangelical Protestants. They also faced an increasingly plural situation with the immigration of large numbers of Catholics and Jews, as well as the growing influence of the African-American church, which in turn, made its contribution to the rise of pentecostalism.

The fault lines become more pronounced in the early twentieth century with divides in mainline denominations between north and south, a rise of fundamentalism in reaction to liberal scholarship. John Dewey’s secular ideals prevail in the educational establishment. The Niebuhr brothers and Karl Barth offer a neo-orthodox alternative to liberal scholarship in more mainline contexts while those of evangelical belief retreat into fundamentalism.

Marsden notes another great reversal post-World War 2 with the rise in church membership, the baby boom, the ministry of Billy Graham, a re-framed culturally engaged evangelicalism, as well as the growth of Jewish and Catholic influence in the country. The African-American church led by Dr. King awakens and asserts its call for justice and civil rights. Then a rising evangelical movement becomes increasingly politically engaged and Marsden traces this history from the rise of Jimmy Carter to the election of 2016, chronicling an increasingly fragmented, secularized, and polarized country.

This “brief history,” as the subtitle calls it, covers extensive ground, and various movements, sects, and various religious communities, in a history at once descriptive, and illustrative of the “religious and profane” theme. Marsden particularly portrays the conflict between religious ideals and our treatment of native peoples and African-Americans, the changing face of Protestant privilege, the unholy alliances that have existed between Christians and our government throughout our history, the growing pluralism, both religious and irreligious, and the perennial tension between the country’s religious and secular ideals.

Marsden concludes with a few thoughts on preserving a truly pluralistic society, which he believes begins with clarifying the rules that protect free speech and genuine diversity within various sub-communities, protecting them from the tyranny of the majority. He concludes by noting why knowledge of our history is so vital to this project:

“This book is a history, and it is much easier to describe how the United States got to the point it has reached with respect to its secular and religious diversity than it is to prescribe exactly how its future with respect to those diversities might be improved. Still, we can safely say that there will be no improvement without historical understanding of how we got to be where we are. One lesson is sure. When it comes to religion, it will not do to resort to easy generalizations; evaluation of its roles must always be nuanced. Such nuance will help us see that religion, even at what we may regard its best, appears in human affairs almost always as a mixed blessing.”

Marsden has given us the resources for that nuanced “understanding of how we have gotten to be where we are.” This seems critical for religious and political leaders alike, to enable wise and humble decisions that avoid the hubris and folly that sadly has too often characterized our history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Blizzard of 1978

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Blizzard of ’78, Photo courtesy of the Vindicator

As I write, most of Ohio is bracing for a significant snowfall. Recently I wrote about one of the historic snowstorms that hit Youngstown, the great Thanksgiving storm of 1950. Many of us may have heard about that one from our parents, or were young children at the time. Many of us, however, lived through the Blizzard of ’78 that struck the morning of January 26 and continued through the 27th.

Three different low pressure systems collided over western Ohio in a phenomenon known as bombagenesis (what a cool word!), creating an intense low pressure system with record low barometric pressures, 28.34 inches at the Youngstown airport. Wind gusts in some places reached 100 mph. When the storm hit, I had been living away from Youngstown for a couple years, and ended up stranded in Bowling Green, Ohio for five days until I-75 was opened in northwest Ohio. Drifting there was so bad some trucks were covered with snow, and that area of Ohio was perhaps the hardest hit.

The storm hit Youngstown hard as well. I went back and read the Vindicator accounts of what happened locally and thought I would trace this from January 26-28.

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Screen capture of front page of Youngstown Vindicator, January 26, 1978 via Google New Archives

Thursday, January 26, 1978

The storm hits in the early morning hours. At 4:30 am, temperatures were 43 degrees. By 7:00 am, they had dropped to 16 with wind gusts up to 65 miles per hour and driving snow and white out conditions. Power lines arced, light poles fell, one traffic light at Market and Myrtle ended up hanging a few feet off the ground. Power outages were reported along Mahoning Avenue, in the Wickliffe area and parts of the east side. Outages set off 25-30 burglar alarms, keeping police busy. Windows were blown out of homes and businesses including the Hills store in the Lincoln Knolls plaza and Gray Drugs windows in the Boardman Plaza. WHOT had to operate on auxiliary power and WBBW lost power at various points during the day. The postal service cancelled mail deliveries and all schools including Youngstown State were closed that day.

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Screen capture of front page of Youngstown Vindicator, January 27, 1978 via Google News Archives

Friday, January 27, 1978

The Vindicator reported that at least 200 area residents had been evacuated to shelters, many in the Newton Falls area. Others slept at their place of work, unable to return home. Ohio Edison reported 2335 local residents without power and had over 200 linemen at work in the bitterly cold conditions. Statewide, roughly 150,000 to 175,000 were without power. Temperatures were around zero with wind chills at -30 to -40 degrees. Interstates in the western part of the state were closed as well as the Ohio Turnpike. Governor James A. Rhodes, emotionally moved at times spoke about people who were displaced:

“They are helpless victims of something they have no control over…They are going through something tonight that none of us would want to go through.

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Screen capture of front page of Youngstown Vindicator, January 28, 1978 via Google News Archive

Saturday, January 28, 1978

Ohio Edison reported that all but 125 homes had power and said the remaining outages would be restored that day. Roads were slowly getting opened up. In many cases a single lane was opened on some stretches. The Ohio Turnpike was still closed west of the Lorain-Elyria exit, west of Cleveland. Edwin Powell, Vindicator circulation manager claimed that most people still received Thursday and Friday’s papers, in some case, both being delivered on Friday. He said it was a no-win situation, some being upset that papers weren’t delivered, others that the kids were out delivering in that weather–this was when youth still delivered newspapers. Carriers reported that the worst problems were the wind blowing snow in their face and holding onto their papers and getting them into their sacks. As conditions improved and roads got dug out, authorities got a better idea of the storm’s toll. At this point, the Vindicator reported that 18 people statewide had died, including a Lordstown resident who lost power and was found dead in his home of a heart attack. (Later on, the death toll in Ohio was revised to 51, and 70 total in the path of the storm).

Because of the wind and cold, this storm is ranked the worst storm in weather history in Ohio. In some place, wind chills were -70 degrees. In Youngstown, over a foot of snow fell. Statewide, 5000 National Guardsmen were mobilized to rescue stranded residents and drivers (one truck driver whose truck was covered with snow survived a week in his cab before being found). Damage estimates from the storm were $210 million.

One of the interesting debates is whether there was a spike in childbirths nine months later — “blizzard babies.” The evidence is mixed, but I think most of us like the idea of couples finding this particular way to stay warm! However you do it, stay warm and safe this weekend!

I’d love to hear your blizzard memories! Let us know if you were a “blizzard baby!”

Review: The Good Neighbor

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The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersMaxwell King. New York: Abrams Press, 2018.

Summary: The biography of this pioneer in children’s television, the good neighbor in life as well as on screen.

I grew up before Mr. Rogers. My son grew up with him, and I remember coming in when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on and I could feel the tensions of the day drain away, and my racing thoughts slow down as I listened to him talk calmly and slowly, feeding his fish, and telling me that “I like you just the way you are.” The only thing I found myself wondering sometimes was “is this guy for real.”

Maxwell King, who knew Rogers for many years through his leadership in several philanthropic organizations in Pittsburgh, makes the point that the Rogers we saw on screen was the Rogers everyone who worked with him or met him encountered. In this first full-length biography on Roger’s life, King traces the course of his life from his privileged childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to the generous way he ended his life, dying of stomach cancer.

We meet a boy who was overly protected by loving parents until grandparents helped him to begin to spread his wings. His love of music is encouraged, and when he is allowed to choose a piano, he selects a Steinway concert grand that his grandmother purchases, and that followed him through life. The gift of a puppet leads to setting up a puppet theater in the attic of his home. He doesn’t fit in with the athletic culture of his school, but his kindness to the star athlete, who he helps with studies while the athlete was hospitalized, won the attention of his classmates. The morally serious student just doesn’t fit in at Dartmouth, and transfers to the music school at Rollins in Florida. He meets Joanne, the love of his life.

While Joanne completes her studies, Rogers goes to New York, getting a job as an apprentice on NBC, eventually becoming a floor manager under Pat Weaver, working with some of the landmark productions of the early era of television, including the live broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Along the way, Fred and Joanne marry and buy “The Crooked House” on Nantucket.

What looked like an east coast life was interrupted by an invitation to return to Pittsburgh to work with an educational television station being launched, WQED, to work on a children’s television program. Teaming up with vivacious Josie Carey, The Children’s Corner launches in 1954. King describes the growing distance between spontaneous Carey, the entertainer, and Rogers, already thinking about the development of children and the care needed with every word. They part, the show ends, and Rogers life takes another startling turn.

Fred Rogers enrolls as a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and as a candidate for Presbyterian ministry. His vision just didn’t fit the mold. He wanted to be a minister to children, on television. Dr. Bill Orr, who claimed that his most important theological word was forgiveness, was Roger’s most significant mentor. It was at this time that he also met child development psychologist, Margaret McFarland, a consultant to Rogers who shaped much of the philosophy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

After working for a time with the CBC in Toronto, creating Misterogers, where The Neighbor of Make Believe was created, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968, to launch a half hour version that got Rogers in front of the camera for the first time, and not simply doing puppet segments. The remainder of the book traces the show’s development, it’s path-breaking work dealing with issues like divorce. There is the memorable episode on racial differences  with Francois Clemons, where the two of them, a black man and a white man, cool their feet on a hot summer afternoon, with Rogers drying Clemons feet at the end. Clemons was not only black but also gay, and the two of them reprised this episode in 1993. Clemons describes Rogers standard closing: “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” As he says this he looks at Francois Clemons, who asks, “Fred were you talking to me?” Rogers replied, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”

There were moments like this throughout the book that caught me up, encountering the power of Rogers’ kindness and care for those he encountered. While he did not talk about his faith on the show, his daily practices of reading scripture and other religious books and praying were a wellspring of his life–along with his daily swims. These reflected the disciplined life he led, maintaining his weight at 143 pounds. King helps us see the perfectionist side of Rogers, who was always so concerned to get it just right for the children. It seems he was blessed with people who accepted that and rose to it, talented musicians, singers like Clemons, and so many more.

Yet we also see how the show centered around Rogers, who wrote nearly all the scripts and all the songs, as well as composing thirteen operas for children. King contrasts the approach of Rogers measured speech with the pace and cognitive focus of Sesame Street, begun about the same time. Rogers clearly differed, but never criticized them publicly.

This is not all hagiography. Rogers struggled with his own sons, particular the younger John, who rebelled, and estranged himself for a time from the family. As the show took off, Rogers found it difficult to be always present with them. Yet both sons also spoke of the fun they had as a family, of a father who was just a normal guy, who perhaps could have been tougher on them. Jim, the elder son concludes, “I think all Dad really ever wanted for John or me was to be happy and pleased with who we are.”

One of the gifts of this book is that King interviewed most of the people still living, who interacted with Rogers. Perhaps one of the most striking was Tom Junod’s account of meeting Rogers. Junod, a hard-hitting writer for Esquire wanted to write a piece on Rogers and contacted him. It turns out, Rogers was in Manhattan, and without vetting, invites Junod to his apartment, meeting him in a flimsy old bathrobe. Rogers was wealthy, through his family, but utterly unpretentious.

Most of all we see how children loved him. He totally sidetracked an Oprah show talking to children. A letter from one wheelchair-bound Wisconsin boy from Madison, Jeff Erlanger, whose “make a wish” was to meet Rogers, led to a breakfast in Milwaukee, continuing correspondence and an eventual appearance on the show. But not only children loved him.

“One of Fred Rogers’s most loyal fans was Koko, a famously communicative gorilla who appeared on the Neighborhood in 1998. Since Koko had been a faithful viewer of Rogers’s program for years, Fred visited her at the Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, California, in his sweater and sneakers. When she saw him, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and took off his shoes. Then they conversed in American Sign Language, shared a hug, and took pictures of each other.”

King’s book, and this story in particular, suggests to me that Rogers was a modern St. Francis. He came from wealth, and yet lived simply. He pursued a calling, a ministry with a singleness of vision that seemed strange to some at times, and yet had its own peculiar power to form the character and self-worth of children. He sang and spoke through puppets, fed fish, and met us on screen in homely cardigans. To read about him is to be elevated, and to ask oneself, “am I a good neighbor?”

Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

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Is There Purpose in Biology?Denis Alexander. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the idea purpose in biology, the association of purposelessness with the randomness and chance of evolution and whether this is warranted, and how a Christian perspective may both be consistent with what may be observed, and how Christian theology may deal with questions of pain and suffering in evolutionary processes.

One of the common conclusions advanced with the support of evolutionary theory is that there is no inherent purpose evident in the natural world. Much of this is predicated on a process in which life arises through chance and randomness, and that any apparent purpose is illusory.

Denis Alexander, a researcher in biochemistry and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, argues in this book that this is not necessarily a warranted conclusion. First, though he is careful to distinguish between Purpose and purpose. He will not be trying to show evidence of metaphysical Purpose in biology, but that the processes of evolution do evidence purpose in the sense that outcomes were not strictly random, either at a genetic or macro level, but are constrained in certain directions consistent with “purpose.”

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the use of the language of Purpose and purpose in biology through history from the Greeks up through the beginnings of science, and the subsequent denial of purpose as the theory of evolution became established. Then chapters 2 through 4 get “into the weeds” of evolutionary science.

Chapter 2 argues that the direction of evolution toward increasing complexity over time may be reflective of purpose and also that body size and plan is subject to “allometric scaling” and cannot simply occur in any form or size. Convergence where different species in different lines under similar conditions evolve similar structures, is another example of this. Chapter 3 observes that similar constraints exist at the molecular level. Chapter 4 then looks at the genetic level, and the idea of random mutations. It turns out that mutations are not purely random but seem to occur at particular places on chromosomes. Likewise, forces of natural selection are not random, but also constrain outcomes in certain directions. These chapters are fairly technical, but offer a good glimpse of the current state of the discussions in evolutionary biology, as opposed to popular caricatures.

In chapter 5, Alexander shifts to theological discussion. He recognizes that in practice, people do introduce discussions of Purpose that reflect their worldviews. What he does is articulate an understanding of “top down” creation at work through evolutionary processes–not in the “gaps” but throughout, a version of theistic evolution. A significant aspect of this has to do with his belief in God’s “immanence” in creation, working in and through evolutionary processes.

Chapter 6 concludes the discussion by dealing with one of the problems of his proposal. To argue that God is involved “immanently” in evolutionary processes makes God in some ways responsible for the pain and suffering implicit for both animal and human species facing natural selection, or dying because of mutations leading to genetic defects or cancer. Alexander dismisses responses of “fallen creation” or attributions of suffering to sin, arguing for a kind of “freedom” in evolutionary processes that necessarily includes pain–that God no more compels creation than he does human beings.

I suspect there is material here in every chapter that someone will take exception to, including the basic theistic evolutionary position Alexander takes. Those who dismiss theism will reject Alexander’s case for purpose. Others will struggle with his theodicy. Some would argue that you can see not only purpose but Purpose in biological science in itself. I would contend that the strength of Alexander’s argument is that it is neither dismissive of evolutionary science nor of a God engaged with creation working out God’s purposes. He shows how the two are at least consonant with each other. He chooses a “messy” explanation to the problem of pain that leaves room for mystery rather than pat answers. For those not interested in an oppositional approach to evolution and creation, Alexander’s work offers a way, or at least hints of a way forward.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Perfectly Human

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Perfectly HumanSarah C. Williams. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: A personal narrative of a couple facing a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, their decision to carry their daughter to term, their process with family and friends, and the larger issues their own decision raised for them.

Sarah Williams had struggled through a horrendous pregnancy of nausea, even as her children anticipated a younger sibling. A routine, twenty-week pre-natal screening turns suddenly serious. A specialist diagnoses thanatophoric dysplasia, a skeletal deformity resulting in a chest that is too small to sustain proper lung development, and a baby unable to breathe upon birth. The expectation of the medical professionals is that they would terminate the pregnancy, and this is Sarah, and her husband Paul’s, first instinct as well. Except that she felt God speak to her that May evening: “Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for me?” Subsequently she reflects: “…it became less a question of my loving the baby as me watching God love and then following him in his love.

Close friends and their pastor rally around them. Others respond less helpfully, from insistent faith that God would cure the defects to criticism from academic colleagues for even thinking of carrying such a “sub-optimal” life to term. We also see things from Paul’s perspective, and how men are often closed out of this process, when they also love and grieve their child.

Most touching are the ways they deal with this as a family. They talk honestly with the children, who each respond in different ways as they love and grieve their baby sister. The family names her Cerian, a Welsh name that means “loved.” One of the children records her heartbeat. The family goes camping, and then stays with Sarah’s mother Wren, who provides a place of spiritual retreat as Sarah approaches delivery, complicated by hydramnios, a buildup of amniotic fluid because the baby is not swallowing enough.

The narrative of her induced birth is powerful. Sarah had nearly died as the baby pressed against a major blood vessel. The time has come to let go of the baby but she fights against her body until she “sees” a horse and rider, who she understands to be Jesus, come for her baby.

She deals with the rawness of her grief and that of her family. No effort is made to spiritualize it but we see grieving people helping each other to figure out how to remember Cerian, and to learn from the love they were called into. Sarah writes:

“During the nine months I carried Cerian, God had come close to me again unexpectedly, wild and beautiful, good and gracious. I touched his presence as I carried Cerian, and as a result I realized that underneath all my other longings lay an aching desire for God himself and for his love. Cerian shamed my strength and in her weakness she showed me a way of intimacy.”

The book is pro-life without pitting mothers against babies, without judging or advocating. The author acknowledges that others facing the same situation might choose differently and she refuses to judge those choices. An epilogue does wrestle with these issues, more with questions about the choices we have taken upon ourselves because of our technology that suggest that our humanness, and sometimes that of others, reflects our own self-definitions and self-creations. Cerian showed her a different way:

“Limitations, finitude, suffering, weakness, disability, and frailty can be gifts. Far from robbing us of our humanity, without a place for these things we are less than human. Ultimately, personhood is not a work of self-definition and self-creation. Instead, it is a gift.”

This is a work of exquisite, intimate, and aching beauty that also raises profound questions without becoming preachy or censorious. It also reflects the power of a community of family and friends. The inclusion of Paul and his own struggles and growth in the process reminds us that pregnancy is also about men, not imposing their will upon a woman, but through conception, stepping into the joys, the griefs, and the sacrificial love of being a husband and father. Paul rails against the ways he is institutionally excluded, and chooses not to remain aloof but as deeply involved as a man can be in these things, allowing both love and loss to touch his own heart. Williams shows care with words, using them well to articulate self-understanding and insight. To read this narrative is alternately to wonder and to weep, in our own longings for we know not what, at the perfectly human gift of Cerian.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mariner

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Mariner (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Malcolm Guite. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with an analysis showing how his most famous poem foretold and paralleled the course of his own life–a journey of fall, a need for grace, and redemption.

“Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.”

I first read these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a class on Romantic Literature over forty years ago. I must admit that I have not revisited these lines until reading Malcolm Guite’s Mariner. In the poem, the mariner voyages across the Equator, braves storms and fogs, encounters an albatross who guides the crew until they are able to head northward once more, only for the mariner to kill it with an arrow. Subsequently the winds die, they languish in the doldrums until the coming of the death ship when all around die, while the mariner lives, bearing the albatross around his neck, despising the slimy creatures of the sea and the brazen sun. Things turn on a moonlit night when suddenly the mariner’s heart is filled with love for all, including the once despised sea creatures, the albatross falls and he can pray. The ship is propelled mysteriously home, spirits inhabiting the bodies of the crew. At one point he swoons, hears voices speaking of the penance he has yet to undergo for taking the life of the albatross, loved by God. Eventually, the ship in tatters, arrives home, and as the harbor pilot, his helper, and a hermit arrive, the ship sinks, with the mariner being rescued. He confesses to the hermit, and then pursues his task ever after of telling the story, including to the wedding guest detained to hear him out. He concludes his words to the guest with these, that capture the grace he has gained amid the loss of the journey:

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small; 
For the dear God who loveth us, 
He made and loveth all.

What Malcolm Guite does in this work is to show us how the poem, written when Coleridge was at the height of his poetic powers, presciently parallels the subsequent course of Coleridge’s life as he descends into an opium addiction that destroys his marriage, alienates his friends, and undermines his health.

Part One of the book is both biography and analysis of Coleridge’s work leading up to the composition of Rime. Guite traces his childhood upbringing as the youngest of ten children of a minister in the Church of England, his education at Cambridge, his failure to win a critical scholarship, his first use of opium, his comic career with the dragoons, his early literary efforts, his marriage through his friendship with Southey to Sara, and his growing relationship with Wordsworth, complicated as it was by first supporting him in the joint project of the Lyrical Ballads and then being overshadowed. While his marriage begins to unravel, there is an annus mirabilis of literary production, culminating in the Rime.

Part Two, in seven chapters that follow the seven parts of the poem combine analysis of the poem with a narrative of Coleridge’s deterioration as he struggles with opium addiction, his repeated failed efforts to get his finances on a sound footing, to heal his marriage, and to struggle with his affection for “Asra,” an affair that remains Platonic until broken off. We see the brilliance of his production, even afflicted by addiction, and wonder what might have been. Guite also describes the spiritual journey of Coleridge, his growing realization that his reason, even his reasoning faith cannot save him, but only grace alone. He traces the movement of Coleridge’s faith from head to heart, and the decisive surrender of his life into the care of his physician, with whom he lives the last eighteen years of his life. He writes:

“Most writers about Coleridge have opted to tell only one of two apparently very different stories: the first and best know is the sublime yet tragic story of the poet of inspiration and of agony, of the love who speaks with and from a broken heart, the poet of freedom who finds himself evermore deeply meshed in the bondage of opium, and ends his life, from that perspective, in apparent failure. The second is the story of Coleridge the thinker, the philosopher, the man of faith, the founder of literary criticism, and the originator of almost every school of literary criticism we now possess….But the real story is much more moving….When we see how Coleridge reached out toward, shaped, and attained that dynamic philosophy, that integration of faith and reason, in the midst of the heartbreak of forsaken love and the corruption and damage of opium, how he achieved what he did not only in spite of the pain and despair through which he lived, but with that pain and despair, expressed in prayer and poetry, as his materials, then we begin to see the greatness of his achievement” (p. 220).

I never felt that the parallel that Guite draws between the poem and Coleridge’s life to be forced. Rather, it seems to be a case that Coleridge wrote more than he knew. For Guite, the later glosses on the poem that Coleridge added are vital to his argument, hinting at the insights from life Coleridge has gained that only deepen the meaning of his work.

I also appreciated Guite’s analysis of the poem and its movement of descent and fall, realization of the need for grace, and redemption. In addition, one of the themes Guite explores is an environmental one–the groaning creation, and the necessity of loving what God has loved. I also delighted in how the seven sections of his analysis of the poem are complemented by the illustrations of Gustave Doré.

This book is an utter delight, doing justice to Coleridge, his work, and his most famous poem. Malcolm Guite, an accomplished poet and theologian, brings all these gifts to bear in a study that helps us appreciate the intellectual contribution of Coleridge, the power of his poetic works, and the work of grace experienced by this tormented man. The narrative of Coleridge’s opiate addiction, his inability to save himself, his surrender and dependence upon a Higher Power is a narrative that others who struggle with addiction will understand, and perhaps find hope in for themselves. I think both Coleridge and his mariner would be glad were this so.

Review: Co-Active Coaching

co-active coaching

Co-Active CoachingHenry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Philip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011 (3rd edition–link is to 4th edition published in 2018).

Summary: A model of coaching in which coach and client actively collaborate to accomplish the clients needs, and the cornerstones, contexts, and core principles to realize those outcomes.

There are a variety of models for coaching and versatile coaches draw upon different models to meet the needs of their clients. In reading this book, what I found, which is described as a model, really seems to be a description of the ethos of coaching, the framework of practice within which a coach teams with his or her clients to accomplish the client’s goals. That’s not surprising since the authors (one now deceased) have been involved in coaching work since the 1980’s. This work was first published in the late 1990’s and is now in its fourth edition (my review is of the third edition).

The “co-active” refers to the kind of relationship that exists between coach and client, in which each actively collaborates to accomplish the client’s goals. Coaches are fully engaged in attentive listening, drawing upon their own curiosity and intuition. Clients are fully engaged in identifying their goals and aspirations, and doing the work that coach and client identify are necessary to pursue those goals. The authors talk about a “coaching power triangle” consisting of the coach, the client and the coaching relationship. It is the coaching relationship that is powerful, not the coach, and the power each grants to the relationship is directed to the empowering of the client. It strikes me that this is what all good coaching strives for, whether under the “co-active” label or not, but the term highlights the shared agency of both parties.

The model works around four cornerstones, five contexts, and three core principles

The four cornerstones provide the structure for the co-active relationship:

  1. People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. The assumption here is that clients are capable of discovering and implementing actions toward their goals.
  2. Focus on the whole person. While there may be a problem to solve or a business goal to attain, the client brings all of who they are, and the most effective coaching relationships address that whole person.
  3. Dance in this moment. This is to be fully present with the client in the moment, to what is happening in the conversation.
  4. Evoke transformation, not just “ahh” but “aha”–deeper awareness and expanded capacity to act in the client.

The five contexts are aspects of the coach’s contact or presence with the client:

  1. Listening: There are three levels of listening. Internal is the coach listening to their own internal dialogue, focused is the coach attentively listening to the client, and global goes beyond what is said, to everything around that, the subtle nuances and the total context of the client. Good listening is at the latter two levels.
  2. Intuition: This synthesizes attentive listening, subtle cues, and our experience, and often presents as a gut sense or hunch.
  3. Curiosity: Asking questions, exploring in open, inviting, playful, and companionable fashion that creates the sense of safety to explore even the dark and unknown spaces.
  4. Forward and deepen: “Forward” refers to moving the client forward in action. “Deepen” emphasizes learning that goes beyond the action to core principles of the client.
  5. Self-management: Mostly this means the ability of the coach to not make it about them but about the client. It’s not about being right about insights and hunches. It is about the client

The three core principles have to do with the whole life of the client:

  1. Fulfillment: what the client values and how they define their purpose in life. In co-active coaching, the “wheel of life” exercise is one tool used to help people identify the degree of fulfillment they are experiencing in different areas of life.
  2. Balance: often clients get stuck being out of balance. Coaching opens up new perspectives, helps clients choose a different perspective, figure out what to say no and yes to, to act out of that new perspective, and commit to that plan.
  3. Process: It is easy to focus only on results in coaching and lose sight of the process occurring in the coaching relationship, celebrating the person the client is, and is becoming along the way.

A chapter of the book is devoted to each of the five contexts and three core principles with coaching dialogues that illustrate each of these as well as many personal examples from the authors’ coaching practice. Additional resources are offered throughout the book in an online Coaches Toolkit that may be accessed for free and used freely at: http://www.coactive.com/toolkit — a huge resource for coaches.

What I liked in this book is the emphasis on coaches bringing their full selves, including their intuitions and curiosity to the coaching relationship. I also appreciated the idea of clients as creative, resourceful, whole people, who often know far more than the coach about the situation in which they are being coached. I also appreciated the focus on the whole person and not just business problems or goals. The generous resources of the online Coaches Toolkit are another asset.

What I would have liked more help with is how one negotiates the focus on the whole person with the business goals, particularly if it is an organization, and not the individual who has hired you. This book also seems to play down the role of fluency in the types of organizational or business situations one is coaching in (start-up versus large organization, local business versus global, etc.). It focuses on the “soft” versus “hard” skills of coaching, it seems, and I wonder if some caveats here might be helpful.

As I commented above, I think, of the several books I’ve read (I’m by no means an expert in this area), I thought this book did the best job describing the ethos or fundamental nature of coaching. The authors provide a helpful description of the environment of a good coaching relationship, the nature of coaching and what transformation looks like for the client. It left me more excited about the coaching aspects of my own work.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Lake Cohasset

lake-cohasset

Lake Cohasset in Autumn, Photo by Bob Trube

“Cohasset” was significant to me in two respects. My grandparents, on my father’s side, lived on Cohasset Drive, at that time a beautiful tree-lined street, that on the west side of Glenwood Avenue dead ends on Mill Creek Park above Lake Cohasset, which I have always regarded as the most scenic of Mill Creek Park’s lakes.

There are a number of different definitions of the word “Cohasset,” all of which fit Lake Cohasset. Wikipedia states that it was an Algonquian name, a contraction of “Conahasset,” meaning “long rocky place.” Britannica’s definition is similar, saying the word derives from the Algonquian names “Quonohassit (Conohasset)” and meaning “rocky promontory” or “high place.” Carol Potter and Rick Shale, in Historic Mill Creek Park, state that the word means ” ‘place of the hemlocks or pines’ in the language of the Delaware Indians” (who are one of the Algonquian peoples). Similarly, the 20th Century History of Youngstown and Mahoning County says the word means “place of pines.” There are rocky bluffs on both sides of  this long, narrow lake, which is lined by hemlocks and other pines. However you define it, the name fits! And like many place names in Ohio (itself a Seneca name), it comes from the native peoples who were here before us.

Lake Cohasset, covering 28 acres, was the first artificial lake in the park, created by a dam at its north end in 1897, shortly after Volney Rogers helped create Mill Creek Park. The dam is 23 feet high, and the spillway 147 feet in length. Volney Rogers described the dam construction as follows:

“The foundation is a hard, fine grained sandstone rock, and this was excavated by pick only to a depth of from eighteen inches to four feet across the gorge, the width and length of walls and abutments. This excavation was filled with masonry of sandstone and cement. The walls are of cut stone, rock face, both beds and joints of every stone being broken. The result is a simple, strong, durable and appropriate structure, whose waterfall and accompanying scenery will delight visitors for long, long ages.”

More than 120 years later, visitors still delight in both the structure and accompanying scenery!

In the early days the park purchased a naphtha boat offering round trip excursions for 10 cents, in 1898. The boat was called the Narama. People would hold moonlight parties on the Lake. In 1924, a bathing pool and bath house were opened up on the south end of Lake Cohasset. Howard C. Aley writes in A Heritage to Share:

“A new bathing pool at the head of Lake Cohasset was opened to the public, with bathing suits in all sizes and colors available for rent at 20 cents an hour, plus 10 cents for dressing room and towel. Sunday bathing was available for those who could not swim during the week.”

Boating, swimming and fishing in Lake Cohasset have long been banned, as they are currently. One of the things that contributes to the serenity of the place is the lack of activity on the lake. Hiking on the trails that run along either side of the lake allows one to view the Lake in all its beauty throughout the year. The old East Drive above the lake is now converted to a hiking and biking trail, while the West Drive remains open for automobiles. In recent years 42 bird species have been observed around the lake.

The lake was dredged in 1949 and as far as I know, has not been since. One of the recommendations following high E. coli levels in the Mill Creek watershed that led to closure of all three lakes in 2015 was the dredging of Lake Cohasset due to sediment buildup. At this time, no further action has been taken.

Volney Rogers wrote of Lake Cohasset in A Partial Description of Mill Creek Park, Youngstown, Ohio:

“The vistas from both drives, and from the foot-paths present some of the most charming park scenes in America….

The cliffs and bluffs around the lake, and in view from its waters are clothed with lichens, mosses, ferns, wild flowers, and shrubs, as well as trees, and as a whole present one of Nature’s very best lake borders.”

This is one of the treasures of Youngstown that I hope the Mill Creek Metroparks leadership will exercise good stewardship to preserve. The views and the natural beauty of this setting that Rogers are those I remember from my youth and have treasured on visits back home. I hope they will be there for the “long, long ages” of which Rogers wrote.